A lot of people ask about the history of J.F. Brennan Company, Inc. It all began with two brothers out of Lansing, Iowa.
J.F. Brennan Company's founder, James Francis (Jim), was born on a farm south of Lansing in 1896. As was typical in rural Iowa at the turn of the 20th century, Jim left school to work on the family farm after completing the 8th grade. He and his brother Gene didn't much care for farming, so with the aid of their father, they invested in a steam threshing machine. They threshed in the fall and used their steam engine to operate a sawmill in the winter. To fill out the rest of the year, they picked up odd jobs such as pouring concrete floors in milking barns for area farmers.
As they became more well known around Lansing, people referred to Jim and Gene as the “Brennan Brothers." They owned a Model T pickup and could fit all their construction equipment in the back of that truck, including a rudimentary concrete mixer fashioned from an old barrel.
The exact date at which Jim and Gene started the company isn’t known; however, family lore generally agrees that it took place during 1919. To pursue publicly bid county work, they formalized their partnership under the name “Brennan Brothers Construction.” Their first project was a small bridge along a county road near the farm where they grew up. The county engineer had all the materials on hand and interested parties showed up to bid on supplying the labor. Jim and Gene figured the job would go for about $100; they really wanted the project, so they decided to bid $99. Jim wanted the work so badly that he ended up bidding the job at $97 and was awarded the work.
Thus began the Jim Brennan Legacy.
During the early years, Jim and his brother, Gene, worked for Allamakee County, Iowa, as well as area railroads. Their work typically involved repair and replacement of bridges; however, in the wintertime, they also built houses and took on remodeling projects for area government and commercial buildings. They didn’t have much in the way of heavy equipment, so they did most of their work by hand or using teams of horses. When they needed help, their crews often consisted of friends and neighbors.
On June 15, 1926, Jim married Kathryn E. Mullarkey, who was born in Lafayette Township on March 19, 1897. Together, they had two children: Ann Marie (Marie) in 1927 and Ralph in 1929.
As they expanded their business, Jim and Gene began working on larger structures. Many of the bridges in Allamakee County at that time were underdeveloped timber structures. This provided the brothers with ample opportunities to replace old wooden bridges with larger, better-designed steel structures. Jim and his crews worked long hours and if the project was far away, they camped in tents next to their worksite.
1937 was a particularly tough year for Jim. Kathryn suddenly fell ill and passed away from unknown causes. Jim’s time was then divided between raising their children and performing his work.
That year, he also had a tough project in Argyle, Wisconsin where crews could not dewater a cofferdam needed to install a bridge pier. The project went so poorly that it nearly forced Jim and Gene out of business. But the brothers persevered.
Jim Brennan (left), Doc Allinden (center), and State Highway Engineer A.C. Loshe (right) in 1937 constructing the Argyle Bridge.
1945 was another pivotal year for Jim. He married Dorothy Malay and moved to La Crosse, Wisconsin. Dorothy was a fun-loving lady who could walk into a restaurant or bar, sit at the piano, and immediately have the whole crowd singing along.
After getting married, Jim and his son Ralph moved to La Crosse. Jim opened a shop on the north side of the city near an old Milwaukee Road roundhouse. From that moment on, Brennan Brothers operated out of both La Crosse and Lansing. Meanwhile, Jim’s daughter, Marie, had just graduated high school and started attending college in Milwaukee.
Photographed left to right: Ralph, Marie, Dorothy, Jim, and Julia (Jim's mother).
Jim always had a love for the river. In his spare time, he ventured out in his big two-story houseboat, JA-DO, which he built in the late 1940s. It was around this time that Brennan Brothers started doing more work along the Upper Mississippi River for the U.S. Coast Guard. Conveniently, the JA-DO had a couple of tow knees on the front, allowing Jim to use it on construction projects.
Jim's daughter, Marie, married a young man named Roger Binsfeld in 1949. A year later, the couple moved to La Crosse and Roger began working for his father-in-law.
During the 1950s, Brennan Brothers pursued both highway bridge and river work. They began to build a small fleet of barges and work vessels which allowed them to take on larger projects.
Roger Binsfeld and Jim Brennan
Upon finishing his service with the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Ralph returned to La Crosse and joined the family business.
After 40 years, Jim and Gene ended their partnership and went separate ways. Jim officially incorporated J.F. Brennan Company in La Crosse and became its first President. The brothers divided up their equipment, though they continued to pursue much of the same work.
It’s worth noting that in 1959, Jim was 63 years old and had developed a strong reputation for quality work and honest dealings. When he and Gene decided to split Brennan Brothers, Jim could have sold his half of the business and retired a successful man. However, he chose to bet on the next generation: he not only made Ralph and Roger his partners, but he also staked his entire reputation on them in naming the new company after himself.
Gene and Jim Brennan prior to parting on the Winneshiek Slough Project near Lansing, IA.
Jim remained extremely active in J.F. Brennan Company during the 1960s. The business grew substantially during these years as new opportunities arose, such as bridge work on the new Interstate Highway System. As the decade wore on, Roger and Ralph took on leadership roles under Jim's tutelage.
Ralph Brennan, who oversaw the job, reports to Jim during the construction of the I-90 Black River Bridge in 1963.
A local firm named La Crosse Trailer Company closed its doors in 1968. Jim, Roger, and Ralph hired several of La Crosse Trailer’s key employees and started a fabrication division. This division eventually evolved into a sister company: River Steel, Inc.
That same year, a new 1200-HP towboat was fabricated in and launched from the Brennan yard. The James Brennan became the cornerstone of the Brennan fleet.
Even in his later years, Jim spent much of his time at work. He passed away at the age of 74, leaving a legacy that continues to grow to this day.
Jim Brennan personified the culture that his namesake company still cherishes. Known for his honesty and fairness, Jim always treated people with respect. He was not afraid to take on new challenges, but he also believed that there was no room for error when delivering on client expectations. As his son-in-law, Roger Binsfeld recalled, “He would always tell me that so few people need the type of service we offer that we can’t afford to alienate our clients. We need every one of our customers, so go out of your way to make sure they are happy with our work.”
Jim is remembered as an exceptionally kind man, well-liked by those who met him. In his free time, he was quick with a joke, and was often seen with a glass of Jim Beam in his hand and a cigar in his mouth.
Bill Walleser, a senior Brennan superintendent who retired many years ago, told a great story about working in the shop with Jim. One day, Jim pulled up in his big Chrysler and told Bill to get in the car. Jim proceeded to drive and as he did, gave Bill hell up one side and down the other.
As they returned to the shop, Bill asked, “Mr. Brennan, should I go in and pick up my last paycheck?” Jim replied, “Walleser, I don’t waste my time on people who aren’t going to last around here. Now get back to work.”
James Francis Brennan